- Victorian Gender FluidityPerformativity and Reception in A Florida Enchantment and Gabriel
How do we read masculinity performed by someone assigned female at birth and presenting as female? How might a nineteenth-century audience have read such masculinity? Can an audience make the jump past not only physiological signifiers of gender such as breasts, long hair, and facial features but sartorial signifiers as well? Can an audience see a female actor in female costume and retain awareness of the character’s masculine identity through knowledge of the plot and performance of masculine physicality? Can these performances be understood as more than the lesbian-coded homoerotics scholars have previously attached to them?
This analysis of Archibald Clavering Gunter’s A Florida Enchantment is partly an act of reconstitution. While what interests me most is the 1896 stage performance and its reception, the text has been lost. I therefore approach the performance through an analysis of the 1892 novel and the 1914 film version, as well as contemporaneous newspaper reviews. The film version mainly follows the plot of the novel, with the exception of an altered ending. Based on newspaper reviews, Laura Horak concludes that the play did not alter the ending, staying true to the novel, with the exception of the addition of a few musical numbers (97). I will explore Gunter’s 1892 novel and 1896 stage adaptation of A Florida Enchantment and George Sand’s 1839 play Gabriel, reading both as forms of trans representation. Both plays explore gender fixity, fluidity, and essentialism through representations of non-normative gender identity. Furthermore, both feature a central character played by a woman who performs both male and female personas. A Florida Enchantment is a melodrama that tells the story of Lilly Travers, a young New York heiress who ingests a magic seed that was stolen from an African tree and that turns her into a man. Wishing to live as a man, Travers leaves Florida to create a new male persona so that he1 may return as a man and court a woman with whom he has fallen in love. Gabriel’s titular character is assigned female at birth but raised as a boy in order to bypass inheritance laws (the play takes place in seventeenth-century Italy, where property and aristocratic title could be inherited only by men). Discovering his assigned sex at age seventeen, Gabriel seeks out his cousin, Astolphe, who is the rightful heir. The two cousins become lovers, and Gabriel proceeds to live a dual [End Page 131] life—presenting as Gabriel in society and as Astolphe’s wife, Gabrielle, during secret rendezvous in the country. The play explores notions of gender essentialism and critiques the misogynist confines of female gender norms through Gabriel’s navigating both male and female personas. In this essay, I will explore issues of gender presentation and gender identity within these two plays as well as how sexuality and desire function in conjunction with gender presentation. I will take time to examine A Florida Enchantment’s conflation of gender and racial hybridity and the minstrelsy tradition in which the play was performed. Finally, I will express some thoughts regarding a trans perspective of both plays.
In A Florida Enchantment, we see Travers perform three separate genders. First, she performs the femininity expected by the ideology known as “the Victorian Cult of True Womanhood.”2 Next, Travers is turned into a man but continues presenting as Lilly, creating an interesting layering of genders on the stage. Finally, he takes on the presentation and identity of Lawrence, which corresponds to his new gender. Tracking these three gender performances provides a window into audience reception of the play as well as the gender beliefs to which Gunter reacts.
When Lilly Travers is introduced in the novel version of A Florida Enchantment, her description is that of the Victorian ideal of womanhood. She is described as “graceful and feminine” in her appearance and her movements. She is timid in some respects, becoming frightened at the sight of a taxidermied rattlesnake. The text focuses a great deal on her emotions, particularly her passion and jealousy over her fiancé, Fred. Her jealousy is...